Reflecting on the Technical Side of the Microsoft, Barnes & Noble Announcement

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

The news broke this morning about Microsoft and Barnes and Noble coming together in a strategic partnership to take on Amazon, Apple, and Google. It hit me out of left field (on the one weekend I decide to disconnect from my always running news feeds).

I’m of two minds about the new strategic partnership. There’s some good stuff happening, and some “hey, that’s convenient” stuff happening, and some “Oh… Now that I think about this, what if…?” stuff happening. I’ll start with the good and convenient stuff.

It’s no surprise to anyone that Microsoft and Barnes and Noble both get serious benefits from their new relationship:

  • Both companies get resolution to current patent litigation.
  • Barnes and Noble gets some much needed funds to continue the Nook brand and (hopefully) keep the retail end of things afloat.
  • Microsoft gets a ready-made, hardware and software entrée to the current eBook market. (A timely benefit, considering that Microsoft just locked the proverbial doors on their former attempts with the Microsoft proprietary .lit format back in November 2011, and plan to discontinue the Microsoft Reader software by August 30, 2012.)
  • Microsoft also gets to profit from the Nook Study Higher Education textbook platform and compete with the other textbook startups and publishing projects new to the eBook scene in the last two years.
  • Microsoft now has more of a reason to be involved with further development of any future EPUB specifications (they are already a member of the IDPF).
  • Ideally, the new partnership will foster greater competition in the eBook market. (Competition in a market is always a good thing. At least that’s what I learned in high school economics.)

OK. So this is all great. Amazon, Apple, and Google get some much needed competition, and the market grows, and… But what will happen on the technical side of things?

Good question. You see, Microsoft has this history in the open source community of doing something commonly referred to as the three E’s: Embrace, Extend, Extinquish. The last time I heard anyone talking seriously about Microsoft and the three E’s though was back in the days of the Office Open XML format release in Office 2003. Lots of people were unhappy that Microsoft took on the Oasis Open Document Format, even if the end result was Microsoft turning over the Office Open XML format to the ECMA standards group, where it was formally approved in 2006, with an official ISO approval to follow in November 2008.

And then there’s the issue of Microsoft’s previous entry into the world of eBooks. Back in the halcyon days when Palm and Windows Mobile devices reigned supreme, Microsoft did OK with their Microsoft Reader and proprietary .lit format; primarily because they included the software on every Windows Mobile handset.

I’ve played with eBooks for a long time, but I think I’ve only ever bought maybe one or two .lit files. That’s not even 1% of the eBook collection I’ve been amassing since the late ’90s.

Microsoft then went and pulled the plug on the .lit format after Amazon became the 800 lb. gorilla in the eBook market. And now, well, I think it’s fair to say that Microsoft has not made much progress as a significant player in tablet computing, let alone eBooks, in the last few years. At least since Apple released the iPhone.

Remember what Santayana said about repeating history? Yeah. Looking at this whole new Microsoft and Barnes and Noble partnership from the perspective of technical history makes me wary. Questions running through my head include:

  • Is EPUB far enough established, that Microsoft cannot pull the old embrace, extend, and extinguish routine? (I’m not intentionally fear mongering here. Someone’s gotta ask this question…)
  • Or, what about the fact that Barnes and Noble currently uses a variant of Adobe’s ADEPT digital rights management software? Is Microsoft really going to let this practice continue? (Yes, I know many people think that banishment of all digital rights management from the universe is the best-case scenario. But we currently live in a world where DRM does exist, and again… Someone’s gotta ask this question…)
  • Does Microsoft really have a viable phone and tablet computing vision in Windows 8? (This remains to be seen. So far the only people I’ve seen with the most recent Microsoft phones, are on network television programs.)

I own one model of every Nook ever made, so I have a vested interest in seeing the Nook platform survive and flourish. Some of that comes from rooting for the underdog. Lots of it comes from the fact that my little Nook readers are among my current favorite reading devices (yep. I have the Glowlight, too). Therefore, while part of me is thrilled with the business reasons for the new Microsoft and Barnes and Noble partnership, the technical side of me must remain cautiously optimistic. Anyone want to make some popcorn for the DBW #ePrdctn community? We gotta see how this one ends…

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Jean Kaplansky

About Jean Kaplansky

Jean Kaplansky is a Solutions Architect at Aptara, which provides digital publishing solutions to content providers for capitalizing on new digital and mobile mediums. Jean is an avid reader and early adopter of eBooks and eBook-related technology, going back to 1996. Her publishing production past includes work as an XML Architect for Cengage Learning, a Systems Analyst for Pfizer Global Research and Development, and an XML Consultant at Arbortext. Jean’s introduction to typography and publishing production involved a calculator, some printed galleys, and a pica stick back in 1992. Follow her occasional tweets at @JeanKaplansky.

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on the Technical Side of the Microsoft, Barnes & Noble Announcement

  1. Samir Shah

    At least in ebooks, Apple and Amazon are 800 pound gorillas and Barnes and Noble (even with Microsoft’s help) is an 8 ounce metal strip (or whatever is 8 ounce stuff).

    Reply
  2. Karina Mikhli

    The Nook is my favorite e-reader too, so I really hope Microsoft adds to its features rather than try to \fix\ what’s not broken.

    Reply

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